Audubon at Sea
The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon
Audubon at Sea
The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon
The American naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) is widely remembered for his iconic paintings of American birdlife. But as this anthology makes clear, Audubon was also a brilliant writer—and his keen gaze took in far more than creatures of the sky. Culled from his published and unpublished writings, Audubon at Sea explores Audubon’s diverse observations of the ocean, the coast, and their human and animal inhabitants. With Audubon expert Christoph Irmscher and scholar of the sea Richard J. King as our guides, we set sail from the humid expanses of the American South to the shores of England and the chilly landscapes of the Canadian North. We learn not only about the diversity of sea life Audubon documented—birds, sharks, fish, and whales—but also about life aboard ship, travel in early America, Audubon’s work habits, and the origins of beloved paintings. As we face an unfathomable loss of seabirds today, Audubon’s warnings about the fragility of birdlife in his time are prescient and newly relevant.
Charting the course of Audubon’s life and work, from his birth in Haiti to his death in New York City, Irmscher and King’s sweeping introduction and carefully drawn commentary confront the challenges Audubon’s legacy poses for us today, including his participation in American slavery and the thousands of birds he killed for his art. Rounded out by hundreds of historical and ornithological notes and beautiful illustrations, and with a foreword by distinguished photographer and conservationist Subhankar Banerjee, Audubon at Sea is the most comprehensively annotated collection of Audubon’s work ever published.
"In a new selection of John James Audubon’s oceangoing writings, we sense his obsessive quest to draw every bird he saw, even though he disliked being on the water. . . . Audubon at Sea . . . asks us to imagine this landsman 'challenged, on a deeply existential level, by an environment where he couldn’t rely on the instincts that normally made him such an effective observer and hunter of birds.' The focus is on Audubon as writer as much as artist, and the effect is strange and powerful. The texts are impeccably edited by Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King. (King selected them, Irmscher wrote the eloquent introduction and headnotes, and they collaborated on the wide-ranging notes.) . . . Despite Audubon’s lapses into flowery overwriting, the extracts in this volume make for captivating reading, sweeping us from the reefs of the Florida Keys up the Atlantic Seaboard to the icy rocks of the Canadian Maritimes. Everywhere we feel the pressure of his obsessive quest to record and draw every bird he could, and his journals in particular expose all the moody complexity of a man Irmscher describes as 'passionate, outrageous, salty, vain, and brutal, despondent, vulnerable, sentimental, self-ironical, and tender.'"
Jenny Uglow | New York Review of Books
“Audubon at Sea . . . uses the ornithologist’s own words to force us to see him in a new light.”
Erin Blakemore | Washington Post
"While of course best-known for his definitive depictions of American birdlife, John James Audubon also wrote about his extensive travels at sea, from the American South to the shores of England and the frozen Canadian North. This is as much an ecological account as a narrative of his travels, however, with Audubon's concerns for the natural world still relevant today."
"This book has amazing, fascinating, descriptive material, particularly from the coasts of America, and much perceptive insight into the lives of birds."
"The book comprises a series of extracts from Audubon’s own writings and diaries, together with exquisite line drawings, and twenty color plates showing the finished paintings. Both his writings and illustrations reveal him to have been an acute and perceptive observer of the natural world. . . . Today, when so many of the marine and coastal species face threats from pollution, habitat loss, and the climate crisis, we can learn from this master of painting and prose."
"Audubon may be best known for his elegant illustrations of birds and animals, but he was also a colorful and talented writer, and a scientist, capable of keen observations. King and Irmscher have collected a selection of Audubon’s lesser-known writings about seabirds and their watery environment, including his journal of a collecting voyage from Eastport, Maine, to Labrador. The editors give context to Audubon’s work with essays and detailed footnotes about the man and his many contradictions, including mass killing of birds in order to preserve them."
Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors
"This is not a picture book, although there are plenty of Audubon’s sketches and reproductions of his finished artwork in these pages. This is a book of Audubon’s words, some of which were intended for publication and others which were more private jottings, or accounts meant for the later reading by his family. In our age, some of the accounts here would be Audubon’s blog posts. . . . These 300+ pages are full of interest and I very much enjoyed them."
Mark Avery | markavery.info
"The editors and authors of Audubon at Sea, by carefully editing and selecting certain materials, create a more complex image of the bird artist. This book will likely change forever how you think about John James Audubon."
Mark Lynch | Bird Observer
"A must have for those with an interest in Audubon and/or marine ornithology history."
“These excellent selections are a wonderful reminder of why Audubon’s writing deserves to be more widely read. Audubon at Sea is a delightful, captivating book, one that ranges to different regions and seasons, and features not only birds but fish, marine mammals, and many passages of interest concerning fishing, hunting, and collecting practices. Irmscher and King’s expertise is impressive, and their introductions are helpful, informative, and beautifully written. The notes are also truly remarkable: extremely well-informed, instructive, and detailed. This is a superb read.”
Michael P. Branch, professor of literature and the environment, University of Nevada, Reno, author of "On the Trail of the Jackalope"
“A must-read for lovers of the sea and of avian species plying its waters and gracing its shores—this timely, eloquent collaboration between an Audubon scholar and a noted writer on the sea is a plea to save not only birds and their habitats but also wildlife and planet Earth. In Audubon at Sea, Irmscher and King offer a fascinating porthole to a new perspective on the brilliant artist-naturalist and nature writer as well as his portrayals of waterbirds. Reconsidering Audubon’s triumphs and human failings with novel insights, the book celebrates the waterbirds of his Birds of America against a historical maritime and scientific backdrop. In the process, it makes a significant contribution to Audubon studies and underlines, beyond the so-called fallacy of the inexhaustible, the acute loss in biodiversity that threatens the extinction of avifauna.”
Roberta J. M. Olson, curator and author of numerous books, including "Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for ‘The Birds of America’" and two forthcoming on the artist-naturalist
“Audubon at Sea shines a bright light on, and makes visible, three overlooked but significant aspects of Audubon’s work and legacy: his writings on waterbirds as they evolved from imperfect to polished and lyrical prose; his seabird drawings, like the unforgettable ‘Gannet’; and a new focus especially on the seabirds that are now in peril even if they remain out of our sight. The book adds a significant new chapter in our understanding and appreciation of Audubon as an imperfect and troubled nineteenth-century polymath—an artist, ornithologist, writer. Audubon’s work will live on in new debates and conversations, in which Audubon at Sea will play an important role.”
Subhankar Banerjee, from the foreword
Table of Contents
Sources for the Texts
I. Journal of a Sea Voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool aboard the Delos (1826)
II. Ornithological Biography (1831–1839)
A Long Calm at Sea
The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys (Part 2)
The Brown Pelican and The Mangrove
Black Skimmer or Razor-billed Shearwater
Death of a Pirate
The Frigate Pelican
The Sooty Tern
The Wreckers of Florida
St John’s River in Florida
The American Oyster-Catcher
The Fish Hawk or Osprey and The Weak Fish
The Long-billed Curlew
New England and Atlantic Canada
The Bay of Fundy
The Eggers of Labrador
The Foolish Guillemot
The Great Black-backed Gull
The Wandering Shearwater
The Razor-billed Auk
The Common Cormorant
III. Journal of a Collecting Voyage from Eastport to Labrador aboard the Ripley (1833)
For anyone who reads about it today, the scene is heartbreaking, difficult to imagine. The setting: Eldey, a rocky, lonely island ten miles off the coast of southwestern Iceland, reachable only by boat, a rugged chunk of granite rising out of the sea. The date: June 3, 1844, by some accounts at least, though the exact day, month, or year would not have mattered to the birds, including a pair of great auks, likely the last in the world, who had made their home here. They were true survivors, descended from survivors: a volcanic eruption had forced their ancestors to leave their last home (another islet further to the south) and settle here. But there was nothing that had taught these large, flightless birds how to survive what happened on that day: the arrival of three Icelandic fishermen, Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Isleifsson, and Ketil Ketilsson. Abandoning their egg, which was cracked in the process, the adult birds ran as fast as they could. Isleifsson later recalled that the bird he pursued “walked like a man.” But the auks weren’t fast enough: the men strangled them.
Ten years earlier, the naturalist John James Audubon had drawn a pair of great auks. He was in London at the time, and all he had was a dead specimen and a sketchy report from his engraver’s brother, Henry Havell, who, a few years earlier, traveling from New York to England, had “hooked” a great auk and kept the bird on board for a while, for his own private amusement: “It walked very awkwardly, often tumbling over, bit every one within reach of its powerful bill, and refused food of all kinds.” Maybe it finally dawned on Henry that the bird, extracted roughly from its watery environment, was in distress. After a few days, he let it go.
Based on little more than another person’s memory and a museum specimen, Audubon’s drawing of the auks represented an imaginary world. He left it unfinished; the engraver Robert Havell Jr., Henry’s brother, fixed the position of the feet of the bird on the left and created an arctic landscape for the background. Audubon’s auks are silent sentinels in this empty world, one drifting on the water, while the other stands stock-still on a slab of rock. The ocean’s surface is ruffled, the waves cresting in elegant little hillocks, while the cliffs, leaning in and over the water, appear bathed in a light that seems to come from nowhere. Here the birds, not us, are the real residents. Except that they are not. Audubon already knew that these birds, killed first for their meat, then for down and pin feathers, and finally simply because they were rare, didn’t stand a chance. Frozen in timelessness, great auks were, for all he knew, gone from nature; even in Audubon’s fertile artistic imagination, they are little more than monuments to their own demise.
What happened on Eldey is a scene Audubon had known well, as both observer and participant, and he kept revisiting elements of it in his writing and at least implicitly in his art. As an artist, he sought to preserve birds for eternity; as a naturalist, he hunted them, killed them (by the barrelful), and often ate them, too. But birds were notoriously elusive, and none evaded his grasp more than waterbirds, which, in Audubon’s drama of frustrated possession, were a particular challenge and provocation: “The Land Bird flits from bush to bush, runs before you, and seldom extends its flight beyond the range of your vision,” wrote Audubon in the introduction to the third volume of Ornithological Biography, devoted exclusively to sea- and shorebirds. “It is very different with the Water Bird, which sweeps afar over the wide ocean, hovers above the surges, or betakes itself for refuge to the inaccessible rocks on the shore.”
Audubon’s reference here is to seabirds, waterbirds adapted to a marine environment: for sixty million years, they have circumnavigated the globe, survived the roughest weather on the planet, found their way over vast expanses of water with no landmarks to speak of, and hunted for food high in the skies and in the depths of the ocean. Comprising nearly 350 species worldwide, they are the most reliable indicators of the health of our oceans. Which is precisely why it was not an incidental fact when an assessment of population trends conducted in 2015 revealed a 69.7 percent decline of monitored populations over sixty years. Other studies have confirmed that seabirds seem twice as likely as landbirds to be threatened with extinction (28 percent) or decline (47 percent). Significantly, open-ocean birds such as the albatross, the frigatebird, the petrel, and the shearwater are generally worse off than birds that stick close to the coasts, a reflection of the fact that they have smaller clutch sizes and, thus, even small increases in mortality have bigger consequences.
The last auks of Eldey died at the hands of humans. We even know the names of the perpetrators. The killers of seabirds today are less visible, less identifiable. To single out only one of them: seabirds routinely mistake small bits of plastic for fish eggs. If half of the world’s seabirds ingest marine debris today, it is predicted that 99 percent of them will do so by 2050. Written almost two hundred years ago, Audubon’s essays about waterbirds conjure a world on the verge of becoming lost permanently; now, more than ever, they are important reminders of what it is that we need to save, if we want to save ourselves. The possibility of loss haunts the trajectory of the selections in this anthology, ranging from Audubon’s excitement over the richness of sea life during his 1826 voyage to England to the despair he felt during his 1833 voyage to Labrador, when he wrote, on July 21, “Nature herself is perishing.”
* * *
Born on an island, the son of a sea captain, Audubon, over the course of a life lived on two continents, made a total of twelve ocean crossings and dozens of passages around England and France and along the coastlines of North America, from Galveston, Texas, to the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. He did so even though he was prone to debilitating bouts of mal de mer, abject seasickness. No wonder, perhaps, that he was also prone to inventing an alternative originfor himself, one that placed him firmly on land and not within walking distance of an ocean. In an autobiographical essay titled “Myself,” which he wrote around 1835 and never published, he claimed that his birth was an “enigma” to him and then fabricated a story that made Louisiana his birthplace, foreign enough to be credible, familiar enough to legitimize him as an American naturalist: “My father had large properties in Santo Domingo, and was in the habit of visiting frequently that portion of our Southern States called, and known by the name of, Louisiana, then owned by the French Government.” In Louisiana, Jean Audubon had married, he went on, a beautiful “lady of Spanish extraction,” who “bore my father three sons and a daughter,—I being the youngest of the sons and the only one who survived extreme youth.” But their happiness didn’t last long: “My mother, soon after my birth, accompanied my father to the estate of Aux Cayes, on the island of Santo Domingo, and she was one of the victims during the ever-to-be-lamented period of the negro insurrection of that island.”
Since all of that would have taken place long before the Louisiana Purchase, Audubon had, in effect, given himself license to play fast and loose with the truth. But “Jean Rabin,” as he was then called, was in fact born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on April 26, 1785, in the southern port city Les Cayes. We know that his mother was not Spanish but a twenty-seven-year-old white chambermaid from the village Les Mazures in northern France, and that she died of a fever, not because of the Haitian Revolution. There is no evidence that Audubon’s father ever visited Louisiana. Audubon’s obfuscations did not stop with his imaginary birthplace. With one stroke of his pen, he also declared himself his father’s only surviving son from his imaginary marriage. At least on paper, he thus legitimized not only himself but also his half-sister, Rose, born April 29, 1787, the product of his father’s relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper, Catherine “Sanitte” Bouffard. The specter of his illegitimacy haunted Audubon his entire life; the somewhat clumsy cover-up offered at the beginning of “Myself ” was just another installment in a series of fantastical stories that have accumulated around Audubon’s origins, one of which—that he was Louis XVII, the lost Dauphin of France—was perpetuated even after his death.